A Search for History, and Family, in West Sumatra
The last time I met my grandfather was in a dream, three years after he died at the age of 86. He asked for my forgiveness for not being able to attend my wedding, an event I’m sure he wouldn’t have missed for the world.
I remember gasping for air and sobbing uncontrollably the second I woke up as I called out his name while hugging my pillow tight to my chest. After that encounter, I vowed to retrace the footsteps of my ancestors, to reconnect to my roots in the hopes of grasping my identity before I take a leap into the future.
It had been seven years since I set foot in West Sumatra, the land of the Minangkabau (the triumphant water buffalo), a place where my parents and their parents were born.
I traveled past kilometer after kilometer of terraced rice fields, each level revealing different shades of yellows and greens, during my two-hour drive from the provincial capital of Padang to Minang’s traditional and customary capital, Batusangkar, the home of the kings, a place of origin for all Minangnese, the oldest of the three Minang principalities.
Far down the horizon were rows of hills and mountain ranges, stretching as far away as the neighboring province of Riau. Towering above was West Sumatra’s mountain of fire, Marapi, tucked away beneath misty clouds as lush forest covered the volatile volcano.
As we inched closer to Batusangkar, Mount Bungsu slowly revealed its jagged limestone face, offering a stark contrast to the domed hills of the surrounding landscape. Behind Mount Bungsu is Pagaruyung, the site of the palace from where Minang kings ruled their kingdom, which once stretched from the Indian Ocean all the way to the Malacca Strait.
Pagaruyung is the birthplace of my late grandfather, Syamsuddin Datuk Marajo. My grandfather was a datuk, a village elder, the guardian of his clan and a man who presided over customary affairs and the keeper of the community’s secrets, historical and spiritual. Being a datuk in Pagaruyung would mean access to the lives of the kings, their way of life, their artifacts and their history.
How I wished my grandfather was still alive as my head instantly filled with his stories and the folklore of this magical place when we neared Batusangkar. Today, they are no more than faint memories, pieces of a giant puzzle that leads to more questions than answers.
And so my quest to understand the history of my people began.
I was taken by my guide to a place called Pariangan, the oldest Minang settlement still in existence, located half an hour’s drive from Batusangkar in the foothills of Mount Marapi.
Little has changed over the centuries in Pariangan. People still live in traditional wooden homes called rumah gadang with roofs fashioned to resemble a bull’s horns.
A local pointed to a tiny brick house at the opposite end of the valley just above the village’s grand mosque when I asked him about the history of the village. There, the man said, lives the datuk of Pariangan, Jamaluddin Datuk Mangkuto, who has led this village for more than 50 years.
“He will know everything you need to know,” he said.
We were told to wait as we reached Datuk Mangkuto’s house and his daughter searched for him. Five minutes into our wait, in walked a small elderly gentleman wearing a worn gray jacket, an odd-shaped woolly hat and plastic boots, dirty from the muddy fields.
His posture, his rugged outfit and rustic home suggested a humble profession, but his eyes were those of a man of knowledge, authority and wisdom. He was eager to share the history and legends of his village. But before he did so, he provided us with a warning.
“Ninety-eight percent of the stories you have probably heard about the Minangkabau are mere myths and fairy tales,” said the 77-year-old. “It is hard to distinguish history from legend. People have spent months and years, even centuries, trying.”
Datuk Mangkuto retold the tambo, a traditional Minang tale of a prehistoric man who married an angel brought to him from the heavens. Descendants of the protagonist would populate the earth and the Minangnese were descended from the last of their three sons.
But Datuk Mangkuto offered a more scientific explanation of our origins. The Minangnese, he said, migrated from mainland Asia in search of a new beginning. These migrants would travel to Mount Marapi, the highest peak in West Sumatra, to get a better view of the land before choosing to settle in Pariangan.
“Pariangan is located between major streams flowing from the mountain, which provide minerals to nourish the soils. Here we have a natural hot spring and wild animals are drawn to it, making it easy for hunting for meat,” Datuk Mangkuto continued.
He cited an ancient text containing prose that highlights Pariangan’s historical significance. The text recounts West Sumatra’s first kingdom, Galundi Barelo. There would be more small kingdoms centuries later, all merged into one superpower in the 14th century under King Adityawarman, a half-Sumatran prince from Java.
There are more than a hundred megaliths and monoliths in Pariangan alone and the roads that lead to Batusangkar are dotted by hundreds more. Some of them are inscribed with Sanskrit texts detailing land deals, policies and laws.
Other rocks are more mysterious. Scientists have struggled to make sense of two-and-a-half meter megaliths in Sika village that face the volcano. Also, scattered throughout Batusangkar are man-made rock formations that many believe to be ancient burial sites.
But the most mystifying of all is Batu Batikam (the stabbed rock) in Limo Kaum subdistrict, which contains a single hole the size of a dagger. It is said that a Minang prince, Parpatih Nan Sabatang, miraculously stabbed the rock with his kris, ending a prolonged dispute with his older brother, Katamanggungan. Outmatched in a contest of magical skills, the older prince agreed to be banished.
Less than a kilometer from the palace kings lay buried in the shade of a sacred banyan tree. Oaths were taken and decrees were enacted under the centuries-old tree. It is said that the banyan tree is guarded by the spirits and those who dare cut its branches will mysteriously fall ill and meet a tragic demise.
The palace itself was almost deserted when we arrived, with few tourists visiting the site. No one is permitted entry to the palace’s interior as workers rebuild the once-glorious structure, which was adorned by gold and mirrors. A dry straw roof pointing upward nearly six stories high has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt several times, the latest just weeks after my grandfather died in 2005.
Perhaps among the ancient scripts lost in the fires were those that could have answered the troubling questions in my mind. What happened to the last king of Minangkabau, Sutan Alam Bagagarsyah, after he was exiled by the Dutch to Jakarta? Why did the Minangkabau have three sets of rulers: the king of the earth, king of tradition and king of religion? Why did the Minangnese adopt a matrilineal system, the only people in the archipelago to do so?
Not far from the palace, behind rows of inscribed rocks from the time of Adityawarman, is my grandfather’s final resting place. The grave is adorned with marble and two concrete domes bearing the symbol of his authority as a datuk: an embossed marking that resembles a dagger wrapped around a belt. Before his tombstone, I whispered a wish: “Opa, help me understand our history.”
I arrived in Pariangan two days after I made my wish, and to my surprise, I learned Datuk Mangkuto had once met my grandfather. His eyes lit up as I mentioned the name Datuk Marajo, but the light soon faded as I told him he had passed away a long time ago.
“Yes, I know him,” Datuk Mangkuto said. “We met about 10 years ago. He said he had discovered an artifact and asked for my opinion on what it was and its history.”
Datuk Mangkuto appeared reluctant to divulge further details about the artifact, having spent very little time analyzing the object, which perhaps he would never see again now that my grandfather had died.
But knowing that this man had met my grandfather comforted me. I felt my grandfather, this man and myself were somehow connected, united by the same passion to learn about a time long gone.